Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Myrna Ayad

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

Rima Nasser: You’ve played a significant role in the development of the art scene in the UAE. Could you share the key initiatives or contributions that you believe have had a lasting impact on the country’s art landscape?

Myrna Ayad: I really owe it to the women who came before me. There are a few heroes in the UAE art scene that we need to pay tribute to, and this also applies to the wider region. Women played a very important and crucial role long before anyone even talked about Saadiyat Island or Alserkal Avenue, or any of these initiatives. We had women artists and patrons, both Emirati and expatriates, supporting the scene. Among those who come to mind and whom I admire tremendously are Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, wife of the UAE President, who used to collect art by local, UAE-based and Arab artists, long before establishing her namesake foundation. Another is the late Mayla Atassi, who founded Green Art Gallery in a villa in Jumeirah in 1995 and presented work by Arab Modernist artists like Fateh Moudarres and Dia al-Azzawi. There is also the Emirati artist Nujoom Al-Ghanem, who was part of a larger group of artists working with Hassan Sharif and his disciples, whose art was not always understood, but who persevered and is among those pioneers. There are others, and they have birthed this gorgeous art scene in the UAE that is essentially led by women. During my time at Art Dubai, Western journalists would ask, “So what does it feel like to be a woman at the helm of a cultural institution in the Gulf?” And I would say, “Maybe that’s an issue where you are from, but where I am from this is a non-issue. On the contrary, we have been endorsed and empowered from the start.” On a much wider level, the UAE encouraged cultural expression and appreciation. This has been the case for as long as I can remember. There was never any objection. We were always pushed to do more, from the community and government levels. It is also important to note that government support existed before the UAE’s establishment in 1971 – artists like Hassan Sharif and Dr Najat Makki were granted scholarships for study abroad.

RN: Can you share more on your academic background?

MA: I studied political science for two years at the American University of Beirut with dreams of becoming a war correspondent. Later, I graduated from the American University in Dubai, before working in publishing. The idea of being a war correspondent still appealed to me, and I worked at Reuters during the Iraq War in 2003, but became very depressed. It was then that I realised that a reporter must be factual rather than descriptive and I felt that I couldn’t be expressive.

RN: How did you become involved in the art world?

MA: I worked with a now-defunct publishing house that produced three weekly papers. One focused on students and was published in the UAE and in Kuwait, and the other, a kind of Village Voice publication, documented the early art scene. Because of it, we attended The Third Line’s exhibitions pre-Al Quoz, often hosted in ballrooms at places like the Royal Mirage Hotel and Le Reve. Maliha Tabari’s Artspace on Sheikh Zayed Road showcased Farhad Moshiri; Jeffar Khaldi had an open studio in Al Quoz which Isabelle van den Eynde then converted into B21 Progressive Art Gallery and exhibited artists like Bita Fayyazi, Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian, and Khosrow Hassanzadeh, contributing to the Iranian contemporary art scene. In those days, invitations to these exhibitions were adorned with special effects and sent in the mail. These were semi-formal evening events for which attendees dressed up. In 2003, my uncle, Ali Khadra, founded Canvas magazine, urging me to join. Hesitant due to my lack of knowledge about Middle Eastern art and reservations about working with family, I eventually embraced the opportunity. Despite not being exposed to contemporary art museums per se, our family valued cultural institutions and events, attended museums, musicals, the opera and theatre. We grew up in an environment highly appreciative of art. Attending exhibitions in Dubai sparked a desire to learn more. I began freelancing with Canvas, and then worked there for a decade. After I left, I freelanced for a year, writing about regional art for Western publications. I then joined Art Dubai as its director, before eventually establishing my own consultancy, specialising in cultural strategy and publishing. I’m a fervent believer in the written word.

RN: As a founding member of the UAE’s arts community, what inspired you to become actively involved in nurturing and promoting the local art scene?

MA: To explain how I entered this space is one thing, but the more significant question is why I’ve remained. I am of Lebanese origin with French citizenship, and I’ve called Dubai home for 42 years. The seemingly straightforward question, “Where are you from?” has been and continues to be one of the most challenging for me to answer. After four decades, I’ve come to realise that I am not from one place, but rather, from many places, yet my blood is Arab. Living in Dubai has afforded me a unique privilege – the opportunity to connect, engage, and befriend people from diverse corners of the world. Our daily experiences, from the food we savour to the literature we immerse ourselves in, and the events we celebrate, embody remarkable multiculturalism and richness. This diversity is something I cherish deeply. Through my interactions, I’ve fostered a love for this cultural amalgamation, and I desire the same for my children. It is within this multicultural tapestry that tolerance, understanding and respect for others flourish. Throughout this, art has played a crucial role in allowing me to understand who I am. When asked about my origin, I point to the art that surrounds me, whether it’s from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Iran. Working in visual art continues to tell me a lot of things I didn’t know about my heritage and my history. I didn’t know that Lebanon joined the space race in the 1960s, but discovered this through Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige work. I didn’t know that in the process of building the Aswan Dam, Gamal Abdel Nasser uprooted thousands of Nubians who had been living there for so many years. But I learned about it because of the work of Inji Efflatoun and Tahia Halim. There are so many things that I came to know thanks to art, and I’m going to continue doing everything in my power to promote art from our region, because it’s important that we all know and that we feel proud of where we’re from. We have such great stories, and we should be telling them.

RN: You’ve been actively involved in promoting the work of local and regional artists. Could you highlight a few artists from the UAE whose work has left a lasting impression on you, and what makes their contributions to the art scene unique?

MA: Without a doubt, you can’t get very far in a conversation about art in the UAE without mentioning Hassan Sharif, who is a forefather and a pioneer. It must have been very hard to be a conceptual artist in the UAE in those days when the country had just been established and was working on its basic infrastructure. There’s also Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, who are very dear friends. The wonderful thing about them and other artists whom I admire is that they have made, and continue to make, me think. What excites me today is this younger crop of contemporary Emirati artists from Sarah Almehairi to Afra Al Dhaheri and Asma Belhamar. When I started out in the art scene in the early 2000s, we didn’t have that many Emirati artists. Today, we have a crop of young talent with different messages, modes, and practices. It’s incredible. They genuinely excite me.

RN: The UAE’s art landscape has witnessed significant growth over the years. How have you seen the art community in Dubai evolve?

MA: I think human beings naturally want to express and these young Emiratis saw their leadership announcing a project like Saadiyat Island; they saw galleries, auction houses, art fairs, non-profits, foundations and institutions set up, and they thought, ‘this is a legitimate career’ – which it is – and they also have the support of the private sector. I think that the growth is in line with the positioning of each of the emirates. Dubai is the marketplace – more people are collecting art, attending gallery exhibitions and taking a deeper interest in the art scene. This is nationwide. But again, this is another area where I think it needs more. We need more of everything.

RN: What role do universities play?

MA: Zayed University has produced artists like Afra Al Dhaheri, and I think that they’re stepping up their game. There’s also the American University in Sharjah, where the late Tarek Al-Ghoussein taught and was working on his practice at the same time. So, the students’ professors were also artists and photographers. I think that we have some way to go when it comes to academic institutions, but I am so proud and delighted of where we are and what we have achieved in such a short period of time.

RN: And what role do artists take in shaping this transformation?

MA: I firmly believe that when artists receive support, empowerment, and funding, it results in positive outcomes for all of us. Personally, when I seek a deeper understanding of something, I turn to art. This conviction has driven me to author books, with a focus on supporting local artists. I recall when during the then-called Art Paris Abu Dhabi Art Fair I had a conversation with Nada Shabout, questioning why one of the opening exhibitions for Mathaf in Doha had been titled Sajjil. She gazed at me intensely and responded, “Sajjil ana Arabi” (Record, I am an Arab). This moment left a profound impact on me, emphasising the importance of recording, remembering, and retelling. It became a metaphor I live by – to record our stories so they are known, remembered, and passed down. I have immense respect for the written word and a deep need to write. It’s not a cliché: the pen is mightier than the sword. Recording is essential for us, and writing is the way we remember, value, tell stories, and celebrate. It’s how we convey our narratives to others.

RN: As someone who has contributed to the cultural and artistic discourse in the UAE, what changes or developments do you anticipate in the coming years for the country’s art community?

MA: I am so optimistic because the only way is up. Look at where we are and what we have achieved in 52 years. We are moving full steam ahead, but I feel we have so much work to do. I’m looking forward to more documentation, both films and books, which is essential. I’d also like to see some more art criticism.

RN: How do you envision the role of art and artists in fostering unity and a shared cultural identity in the UAE as it continues to develop as a cultural hub?

MA: I think that we already practise this by virtue of seeing art from different places, different people, different expressions, and we start to understand one another. Art really rewires the way you think and your impressions. Somehow in this multicultural atmosphere that we live in, we developed our own culture. We understand one another. When you develop tolerance, you develop appreciation and respect for the other.


About Myrna Ayad

Myrna Ayad, a prominent Beirut-born, Dubai-based arts consultant, and cultural strategist founded her consultancy in 2018, advising clients like PepsiCo and the UAE ministry of culture. Former director of Art Dubai, Ayad is a leading cultural commentator in the Middle East, recognised for her contributions to prestigious publications and her editorial role at Canvas Magazine. Forbes acknowledged her as one of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen in 2017, and she was among the 50 most influential women in the Arab world in 2018.

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